Los Angeles (AFP) – It’s a whole new ballgame in the NBA, where a seismic shift in star talent has flung the door wide open to an array of 2020 title contenders.
The NBA, whose sudden row with China promises to linger, will be hoping on-court excitement in the wake of unexpected off-season moves will pull attention from simmering tensions when the 2019-20 campaign tips off on Tuesday.
With Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson ruled out for the first half of the season after knee surgery, the Golden State Warriors‘ march to the finals that has defined the past five seasons looks to be a thing of the past.
But just as the Warriors open their glitzy new $1.4 billion Chase Arena in San Francisco, the center of gravity in the still powerful Western Conference has shifted south.
The Los Angeles Clippers are the top pick to contend in a survey of NBA general managers, thanks to the arrival of Kawhi Leonard from the reigning champion Toronto Raptors and Paul George from Oklahoma City.
The revamped Clippers are out to usurp the Lakers as Los Angeles’ top team, although the LeBron James-led Lakers won’t go quietly.
A “very motivated” James, whose first campaign in LA ended with him missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005, says the team is ready to contend with former New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis lining up alongside Dwight Howard, Kyle Kuzma and newly arrived Danny Green.
“I’m not in talk-about-it mode,” James said.
The Clippers and Lakers kick off the season on Tuesday, when the Raptors will launch their title defense — and raise their championship banner — in a game against the Pelicans.
The Clippers-Lakers matchup is the first of four games in the season between the Tinseltown rivals, who also feature in the star-studded Christmas slate.
In December, the league ventures south of the border with two games in Mexico, and league icon Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets take on reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and the Milwaukee Bucks at Paris in January.
However, the league that has painstakingly cultivated overseas markets and welcomed a steadily increasing number of international players received a jolting reminder of the pitfalls of global growth on the eve of the season.
Commissioner Adam Silver admits he doesn’t know “where we go from here” after lucrative Chinese sponsorship and telecast deals were left limbo after Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
– Durant’s Nets debut on hold –
And not all of the marquee off-season moves will yield immediate dividends.
Durant won’t suit up for the Brooklyn Nets this season as he continues his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
But with Kyrie Irving, who fled the Boston Celtics, and DeAndre Jordan, the Nets expect to contend.
“The league is wide open on both sides, East and West, so we want to take advantage of our opportunity,” Brooklyn’s Jordan said as training camp opened.
The Clippers will also be without one of their heralded new arrivals as the season starts, with George still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.
George wasn’t the only superstar to depart Oklahoma City, who traded 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for point guard Paul George.
In Houston, Westbrook will be teaming up with 2018 MVP James Harden — his former Thunder teammate who was traded to Houston in 2012.
“When you’re that great of a basketball player, you just go out there and hoop,” Harden said when asked about how the two star talents will mesh. “It’s going to happen. It’s going to be easy.”
Antetokounmpo figures to again play solo lead in Milwaukee, where he’ll be fueled by the Bucks’ inability to get the job done against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals last season.
The “Greek Freak,” still just 24, heads into his seventh NBA season a bona fide superstar — leading a team that many consider the top pick in the East.
That’s a status 19-year-old Zion Williamson is expected to attain almost immediately.
Williamson, the high school standout who became a collegiate star before he was drafted number one overall by the Pelicans, burned through the pre-season, averaging 23.3 points in 27.3 minutes per game.
Only Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry — MVPs all — scored at a higher clip during the exhibition season.